I love to hunt deer. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not all that productive at it, but I love being out there. Bow season is two weeks away, and I’m pretty excited for it, but I don’t have to wait until then to get out in the woods. Small game season started Monday, and I was lucky enough to go squirrel hunting with my boss and some good folks from the DNR at a location where volunteers had spent a Saturday morning improving small game habitat last winter.
I met MUCC Executive Director Dan Eichinger (my boss), DNR Wildlife Chief Russ Mason, DNR Assistant Wildlife Chief Doug Reeves, and Tyler Ridenour of Booner Media, who was filming for an upcoming video segment, at Gratiot-Saginaw State Game Area. We were after squirrels, but we selected the location off Meridian road because this past February, fifteen volunteers spent a Saturday morning opening forest canopy for crabapples and building brush piles for rabbit habitat (rabbitat). And also because there are a lot of oaks there, too, of course!
The project last winter was part of our On the Ground program, and was actually the 2014 season kickoff. Rabbitat projects are a lot of fun for volunteers of all skill levels. They require a couple people who can safely operate a chainsaw, and a few others to stack brush or trim limbs with a handsaw. We’re actually doing another rabbitat project this weekend at the Standish Nature Preserve, which is owned by the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy but is open to the public for hunting. You can sign up for that here.
(L-R) Dan Eichinger, Russ Mason, Douglas Reeves, Drew YoungeDyke
Before really hunting on Monday, we checked out last winter’s brush piles. One thing we noticed is that some of them really sank down since last winter. They’ll still provide great cover for rabbits and various other small game species, but it was a reminder when building brush piles that if you think it’s big enough, make it bigger. Other piles retained their size and we observed ground squirrels, raccoons and songbirds using them. Most importantly, crabapple trees that had been planted years ago were receiving sunlight. Their growth had been stalled, but with trees removed that were blocking their sunlight, they should start to flourish again and provide food for game like deer and turkeys.
Then we split up, with mixed results. I followed the sound of a squirrel chattering to a stand of oaks, but when I saw a treestand nearby I left, not wanting to spook out deer from that feeding location two weeks before the opener. It may be a little overkill this early, but the last thing I want to do is mess up someone else’s hunt. When I got back to the trail, I ran into another squirrel hunter who was coming out of the woods with two gray squirrels in his bag. He said they weren’t moving much, so he sat down and waited for them to appear at the tops of the oaks. He said he also saw a couple bucks, a four-point and a six-point. I thanked him for the tip and found a place to sit down and wait for some squirrels to come out, without the same success.
Last February, 15 volunteers built brush pile structures for small game at Gratiot-Saginaw SGA.
This is where hunting small game can improve your deer hunting, though, especially if you’re a still hunter like me. This was my first day in the woods as a hunter this year. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been in the woods plenty scouting OTG project sites, working on projects improving wildlife habitat, and just scouting on my own for possible public land hunting locations. But when you’re hunting, you’re in a different mindset.
My mind is usually racing pretty fast most of the time thinking about upcoming OTG projects, how to beat HSUS, what they might do next and how we stop them, and a lot of other conservation issues. But when you’re hunting, you have to slow down and focus. I was probably moving too fast and making too much noise to see a squirrel on Monday. That won’t cut it when I’m still-hunting deer in a couple weeks. But I have two weeks of small game hunting to get myself back into a hunter’s mindset so that when bow season opens, I can step into the woods moving, seeing, hearing, thinking and focused like a hunter. I’ll also see some ground and keep my eyes open for deer sign and habitat to return to later this fall.
I had my grandpa’s old Marlin Model ’92 in .22LR with me Monday, but if you really want to test the effectiveness of your bow practice, take your bow with you for squirrels. I didn’t get any with my recurve last fall, but I did bounce a couple off the branch the squirrel was sitting on just below it.
Small game hunting can be rewarding on its own, though, whether or not you’re getting ready for deer season. Both Russ Mason and Doug Reeves got squirrels on Monday, and I’m looking forward to hunting squirrels after Saturday’s OTG project. I’m heading up to the Pigeon River Country for some backpacking, small game hunting and deer scouting, and I’m planning on squirrels for my backcountry supper. Will Brantley and Michael Pendley, who write for Realtree.com, have some great videos and blogs on how to skin and cook squirrels if you’d like a reminder or are new to small game hunting.
Squirrels can be tasty cooked properly.
And with the new license structure, you have no excuse not to try small game hunting. Chances are, that’s how you got started hunting as a kid. I know that’s how I started. But even if you haven’t done it in years, small game is included in the base hunting license that’s part of every other hunting license now. So if you’ve already bought a deer, bear or turkey license, small game is included.
Like all wildlife, small game requires habitat. To make it really simple, rabbits like brush piles and squirrels like oak trees. This Saturday, join us in creating some brush piles at the Standish Nature Preserve. The preserve is about 25 acres and has a trail cutting through center of it. We’ll be cutting non-native autumn olive and stacking it into piles off the trail, which will make it a great place to do some rabbit hunting on a winter afternoon. There are also some small aspen stands that sometimes contain grouse and a pond that has some bass. When you’re done, take your base license and go squirrel hunting for the afternoon. Hope to see you there!
Livin’ Wild Wednesday is the weekly blog from MUCC Grassroots Manager Drew YoungeDyke